Productivity Improvement | 10.15.2014

To Task or Multitask – that is the question

Across the world the ability to multitask is mostly seen as an extremely desirable skill, one to be worn as a badge of honour. Many of us, in this age of effortless information, wear many hats at one time thinking that we’re accomplishing more and being efficient. All of us who form this multitasker community are, however in for a rude shock. Research clearly and consistently suggests that multitasking is not a productivity booster – it is, instead, a productivity sapper.

Studies confirm that our brain is tuned to handle and focus on only one task at a time. Give the brain too many tasks to handle at the same time and it will create performance bottlenecks. Just like it is dangerous to talk on the mobile while driving, switching between multiple tasks will have a negative effect on your productivity levels since it takes the brain time to successfully make that switch. People who are heavy multitaskers not only experience a 40% decline in effective productivity but are also more susceptible to distractions and are less creative at work.

The effects of multitasking have always been seen from an individual’s perspective. However, since most people today typically work in teams, multitasking can also have an impact on organizational productivity and eventually organizational bottom line. Delays caused by individuals due to multitasking can easily snowball into delayed projects. That being said, today’s work environment is such that multitasking in entirety cannot be avoided altogether but needs to be managed. Managers and supervisors need to ensure that individual team members are not overburdened with too many tasks rendering employees unable to split their time efficiently. Proper workforce management and effort analytics play a very important role to determine proper work allocation so that peaks and valleys in workflows, delays and interruptions impacting productivity and constant project reworks can be avoided. Organizational multitasking normally occurs under the following circumstances:

  • One individual is assigned to too many tasks
  • Unsynchronized groups lacking workflow management
  • Multitasking managers who are working on too many work streams and projects at the same time.

Since team output has to be collective in nature, organizational multitasking can lead to higher loss of productivity because:

  • Increased idle time – Multitasking teams normally keep others waiting for their output. Inputs need to be collected from individual contributors causing time and productivity loss.
  • Ineffective managerial support – Multitasking managers have lesser time for their teams. Quality over quantity plays a big role here since they are unable to give each team the time they need. Not being able to spend this quality time when needed can lead to decision delays and eventually project delays as well.
  • A less engaged workforce

So can we effectively eliminate multitasking increase working efficiencies in our working lives? If we can’t then what is the next best solution? In our experience, we have noticed that minimizing distractions and practicing mindfulness at work helps a great deal to stay focused and complete the tasks at hand. It is also essential for teams to minimize distractions so that mistakes in work are minimum and a sense of engagement is higher.

Managers have to urge their teams to take regular breaks so that work doesn’t become overwhelming. Team meetings should be kept short and to the point so that work hours are not lost in endless discussions and productivity is not adversely affected.

Those addicted to their emails or other social media distractions need to build a stronger resistance and learn to focus. Mapping the time spent in engaging in social media activities or checking emails can also help in regaining focus required to boost productivity.

While multitasking might not be easy to quit, taking a quantified approach to work, consciously allocating set amounts of time for breaks, physical or virtual, and working mindfully completing one task at a time can help you get through the day without worrying about work quality and without missing your deliverables.